The Man Who Would Be King & Other Stories

By Rudyard Kipling

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this collection of short stories by Kipling, although they do have a lot of the chest-puffing Empire stuff that people often think about when they think of Kipling, which has mostly been missing from other works of his that I’ve read. These stories are all set in or around India and the first half all seem to revolve around love, infidelity and boredom in Simla, the summer capital of the Raj. That said, there are some crackers in the collection, from the title story of two men who try to set themselves up as gods to a remote tribe, to the heartwrenching story Baa Baa, Black Sheep about two children who are taken from their parents in India to live with a cold-hearted aunt in England.

A fascinating insight into the British Raj in India through the eyes of a great writer of the day. But as well as this, the stories also still stand up, as stories although you do have to filter them through a lens of what was appropriate for the time.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262098
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions

Wireless: The Essential Collection

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

This is a very enjoyable collection of shorts from Stross, a writer I usually enjoy anyway. Of the two longer pieces in the book, Missile Gap and Palimpsest, I probably enjoyed the latter more than the former, with its rather interesting ideas of time travel which seemed to resonate at times with Asimov’s ‘Eternity’ (as in The End of Eternity). Mind you, the Big Dumb Object of the former (a vast disc in space upon which the Earth was ‘peeled’ and deposited by unknown aliens) was pretty mind-blowing. My favourite story in the collection is probably the Wodehouse pastiche Trunk and Disorderly which Stross later mined for ideas that fed into his novel Saturn’s Children. As he says in his afterword to the story, doing humour, especially humour in SF, can be tricky, but he nails his Jeeves and Wooster story almost perfectly here. I also liked the ultra-short MAXOS, about which it’s difficult to say much without spoilers, but suffice to say that it’s a terrifying spin on first contact by radio.

Rogue Farm is a story I originally encountered in audio form on the SF podcast Escape Pod and I still enjoyed it here. The Laundry-universe set Down on the Farm is another story I’ve read before, but can’t remember where and is fun, as is Snowball’s Chance, which I first read in the anthology Nova Scotia (an SF collection themed around Scotland).

The story that I enjoyed least was probably the Lovecraft-themed A Colder War, due to its unrelenting bleakness. But then, I’m not a huge Lovecraft fan anyway.

Stross is a great ideas man and he’s great at forming stories around those ideas as well. This is both a great introduction to his work and great stuff for established fans as well.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841497723
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2009

Surface Detail (Culture #9)

By Iain M. Banks

Rating: 4 stars

In this fine addition to the Culture canon, Banks posits the notion that once you have virtual reality and the ability to copy mind states (‘souls’), some cultures and religions will want to make their various hells real. Obviously this is something that the Culture abhors, but for various political reasons can’t get involved in the formal virtual war that is going to decide the issue. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the galaxy, a slave is murdered by her master and, to her surprise, finds herself reincarnated on a Culture GSV, before immediately trying to make her way back to her homeworld for revenge.

I enjoyed this story very much, even though (or perhaps because of) the labyrinthine political machinations involved. I feel that it would need a few rereads to get a proper handle on all the various plots that were going on, but unlike many other books, where you see that a reread would be required to properly get it but can’t be bothered with the effort, I can see myself rereading this again quite happily. As the books go on, we’re seeing more of the galaxy that the Culture inhabits and how there are Rules and just how they go about bending (and sometimes breaking) those.

I’m not sure if it counts as a spoiler, but I wonder if Banks is possibly going a little soft in his old age? The story here was pretty linear, everything was tidied up at the end and it had a happy ending, without very much of the moral ambiguity that has often characterised his novels in the past. Personally, I’m perfectly happy with this state of affairs, but I can appreciate why people might not appreciate it.

In all, this is a great book for a fan of Banks and the Culture, although perhaps not the best entry point for a newbie.

Book details

ISBN: 9780316123402
Publisher: Orbit/Hachette Book Group
Year of publication: 2010

Tales From Earthsea (Earthsea Cycle, #5)

By Ursula K. Le Guin

Rating: 4 stars

This is a collection of four long-ish short stories and one novella set in Le Guin’s Earthsea universe. The stories span the history of her world, and there are some notes about the history of Earthsea at the end of the book. I enjoyed all the stories in the collection, seeing more of Earthsea, particularly The Finder, the tale of the founding of the great School for wizards on Roke and On the High Marsh, a story set when Sparrowhawk was Archmage. The former is interesting for me because it fills in a degree of backstory that has been hinted at in the books, and the latter because it gives us a little more insight into Ged.

Dragonfly is the novella at the end that bridges Tehanu and The Other Wind, the latter of which I’m now quite anxious to read. It’s set sometime just after the events of Tehanu and tells of the first woman to arrive at Roke to study magic for centuries, and hints that her entry will shake the world.

I enjoyed the style of storytelling in this book. It touches on the themes relating to gender and power that Le Guin started to explore in Tehanu, but all the stories have more of a, well, story, to them and she doesn’t seem quite so angry towards her characters any more. A good read for fans of Earthsea, although best read after the first four novels in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9781842552148
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
Year of publication: 2001

Martin Chuzzlewit

By Charles Dickens

Rating: 3 stars

I have issues with Dickens. I usually enjoy them as I’m reading them, but as soon as I put them down I don’t really want to pick them up again. This is partially why this book has taken me such a long time to read. That, and the fact that it’s about 800 pages long.

The plot is difficult to sum up since there are several meandering subplots that eventually start to come together towards the end of the book (and it was when this happened that I started to really become gripped by it). Old Martin Chuzzlewit is a wealthy man but spends his time hoarding his wealth and seeing plots all around him by his family to grab it. He falls out with his grandson and namesake over the woman he raised from a child to care for him, Mary, who Young Martin has fallen in love with. This sends Young Martin first to study with his relative Seth Pecksniff as an architect and then to America, where several misfortunes happen to him and eventually bring him back to England.

There’s no room in a short review to describe the other characters in the book: the good-hearted Tom Pinch; the hypocritical Pecksniff and his daughters; the rascal Montague Tigg; Old Martin’s brother Anthony and his villainous son Jonas and many more. Dickens’ characters have always been wonderful and these are certainly memorable. Caricatures, certainly, but lovingly rendered for all that.

One of the problems that I had with the book was its several plots, often moving between them, leaving cliffhangers aplenty. I appreciate this is probably due to the original episodic nature of the publication but I still found it somewhat irritating. This was especially apparent in the American sections, where, at one point, we left Young Martin on the verge of death, and didn’t return to him for several chapters.

Speaking of the American sections, I think these were some of the funniest in the book. They do display some degree of anti-Americanism, which Dickens admitted was down to his own perception on his first visit there. He later retracted this and left an afterword making clear that he no longer agreed with this (not in my edition, but I found it on the Wikipedia page). However, I’d argue that the American characters are no worse than the English ones, just “differently bad” with their obsession with Equality and Freedom.

I did find myself at times getting frustrated with the pace of the story and starting to skim-read, as I usually do, and having to stop and force myself to go back and read it again slowly, remembering that Dickens’ art is in his writing, not necessarily the storytelling. The gothic style of writing is certainly dramatic, at times melodramatic, but no less enjoyable for that.

Dickens is, of course, well known for his happy endings, and, despite knowing it must be coming, I was still captivated by it, but then I’m a sucker for happy endings :).

Did this book make me change my mind about Dickens? No, not really. It took me ages to work up to it, I enjoyed it while I was reading it, and now that I’m done, I have no desire to read any more Dickens. I’m sure I’ll pick up another one eventually and the cycle will repeat.

Book details

ISBN: 9781853262050
Publisher: Wordsworth Editions
Year of publication: 1844

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